Cool & refreshing

A bit of a digression here.

We’ve had some real scorchers here this summer.    Friday and Saturday I had to be outdoors almost all day: getting ready for the Farmers’ Market on Friday (digging potatoes, onions) and Saturday, at the market.  Both days were 90+ ° F  and I guzzled Gatorade and water like both were going out of style. I don’t really like Gatorade, but I drink it because it works when I’m outdoors and sweating like a dripping faucet.   Sunday I was lucky enough to be able to stay indoors!

Today I was just doing chores around the house. It was nice enough to have the windows open (thermometer on the back porch reading a mere 83 ° F). In addition to the usual water for thirst, I wanted something (NOT Gatorade) with a little zip to drink. Bored with plain water, I certainly did not want to go to the grocery store and buy flavored water because to me most of the zero-calorie beverages have a very chemical, strange taste, and  the controversy over the quality of bottled waters.   Iced tea was just not appealing either.

Standing on the deck looking at the herbs, I found inspiration in the emerald green leaves of the mint that grows happily in a pot there.  I took about a dozen mint leaves and one fairly large stevia leaf (Stevia rebaudiana ‘AC™ GIIA11’ originally obtained from Richter’s Herb Specialists).  I bruised all the leaves with a pestle, added a cup of water, microwaved it for two minutes, and diluted it in a half-gallon jug (with filtered tap water).  Adding ice, I had a lightly flavored glass of water that was very refreshing to drink.Here is another refreshing-sounding drink recipe for this really hot weather.

Heat makes me want cool refreshing things but they must have something a to satisfy my need for protein.  A  friend posted a “recipe” for watermelon and feta cheese salad with mint.  I’ve eaten so much of it in the last few days.  Needs no extra dressing or anything like that. The flavor synergy between the mint and the watermelon is awesome!  Watermelon is such a great hot-weather food that I’ve been on the lookout for other watermelon things.  This watermelon lemonade sounds great too.  A local restaurant here had the watermelon/feta/mint combination on the menu with a buttermilk-lime dressing.  As tempting as that was on the evening that I ate there, I passed on that because I had been eating the other version for the last two days.  The addition of the citrus made me wonder about adding some mint to the watermelon lemonade watermelon to the mint water (above) for a summer quaff.  Another thing to try before the summer is over.

Kitchen equipment for small-time cooking

One of the most important things in doing “small-time” cooking is to have the right equipment.  You don’t need a lot, just the best that you can afford.  Good equipment makes cooking easier and thus, more enjoyable.

It’s interesting what other serious cooks feel are the basics for cooking.  When so many kitchen gadgets are promoted, it’s easy to pick up things that sound great but really are not necessary, and may not even work well.  I had not really though about the bare essentials until I read what Michael Ruhlman gave as his five basic items: “my truly minimalist kitchen would have a chef’s knife, cutting board, large sauté pan, flat-edged wood spoon and a large Pyrex bowl”.  For the purposes of cooking for one, I might suggest that a smaller sauté pan might be in order, but otherwise those things would give you basic cooking tools.  You can certainly start minimalist and add as you find your cooking style.

One of the most important things in you kitchen is your knives.  Have knives that are comfortable to use–go to a store where you can actually pick them up and feel the weight and the balance.  I like heavy knives; I have a mix of brands chosen because I like the feel, the heft and balance of a particular knife.  You frequently see Wüsthoff, Henkles and, more recently, a number of Japanese knives, in the “gourmet” stores and catalogs, but there are good serviceable knives available that are less  expensive.    You need to buy the best knives you can afford that are comfortable in your hand and fit your cutting style.   If you feel clueless about knives, Consumersearch offers a report on various brands of knives that may be useful. You don’t need a lot of knives; buy the knives that do the things that you do in the kitchen.  You can always add specialty knives as your cooking repertoire expands.  For basic kitchen tasks, a chef’s knife, a slicer and a utility paring knife are good starters.  If you use lots of bread, then you might also want a bread knife but a good, sharp slicer can handle bread.  If you filet fish, then you may well want a specific knife for that–buy only what you need.  There is no point in having a huge set of knives, but using only a couple.  Your money would be better spent in other ways.

A French (chef’s) knife is the real workhorse of the kitchen:  it cuts vegetables, chops, minces; it’s broad tapered blade lets you perform a “rocking” motion for chopping.   A slicer  or slicing knife, with its long, thin blade can slice meats, breads, and tomatoes.  A utility paring knife of 3-1/2 to 4 inches–looking a bit like a small chef’s knife, is good for coring, taking eyes out of potatoes, peeling, et cetera.  These form a sound base of kitchen work.  I also like a “bird’s beak” paring knife that has a short, thin, curved blade makes quick work of shaping and peeling.

I’d consider a cutting board as a necessity even for a minimalist kitchen since I want to treat my knives well.  Cutting boards can be made of so many different things and in such different prices that it can be hard to make a decision.  I would recommend looking at some product reviews, such as Cook’s Illustrated where the testing done is unbiased, and where they are not selling a product.  One of the things that’s important to me is the feel of the board while chopping–it’s hard to beat wood for chopping comfort.  The down side of wood is the necessity of hand washing, and conditioning them; but it takes only seconds, so that’s not the deciding factor for me.  I also have plastic cutting boards in my kitchen; the feel is different from wood, but I still find it comfortable.  I like my cutting boards to be light enough that I can pick them up to move ingredients, rather than having to scrape them up in order to transfer them to their destination.

Another important item for your “small-time” cooking are pots and pans of the appropriate size for the quantity of food that you are cooking.  Quality of these in important too: heavy enough for good even heat transfer.   A 12-inch skillet is just not going to work the same when cooking one chop as when cooking four chops.  The appropriate size pan controls evaporation.  Cooking that single chop in a large skillet will get you burned fond.  Cooking that same chop in a smaller pan will give you that wonderful, browned base for a pan sauce.  Don’t be tempted to buy that set of pots and pans that is suitable for cooking for four or more; if that’s what you have now, your cooking for one will improve when you invest in some smaller pans suited to the size of servings that you are cooking.  Almost all of my cookware is All-Clad, with the occasional piece of Calphalon mixed in.

A food processor is nice, but not by any means a necessity; I have a Krups blender/food processor–the same base works for blender and for the food processor as well.  It’s a very basic food processor–it does not shred, or really do much but chop things.  For a lot of things I won’t use it because I need such a small quantity that it is easier to use a knife which is much quicker to clean than the food processor.  There are times when I would not want to be without the food processor though: when I want to make up mirepoix or soffrito (sofrito) to put in the freezer, or when I want to make a huge pot of chili and need bunches of onions chopped.  Mostly for cooking for one, I use knives or a mortar and pestle for chopping or mincing.

There is one kitchen gadget that I’m in love with:  my immersion blender which comes with a small “processor”, a whisk, and tall container that lets you make mayonnaise or vinaigrette quickly and easily in small quantities, with much less cleanup than the standard food processor.

If you’re serious about cooking for one, get some good knives that fit your hand, and some good pots and pans that are small enough for a single serving–or maybe two servings!

Serves how many?

I love cookbooks.  I love to read cookbooks just to get ideas, but one of the most frustrating things is finding a recipe that I think looks wonderful, but it’s for 6 people.  Sometimes it’s something that will freeze well, so I can make it and not have to eat it for a week.  On the other hand, since I am cooking for one (and the cat) I don’t want to pay for the ingredients to make servings for six or eight people, or have so much in the freezer.  (More on freezer use later.)  The dilemma for the single cook is scale the recipe down, not make it, or eat it for a week.  Personally I don’t do left-overs well; I guess I’m easily bored or they begin to taste like something that’s been in the fridge for five days!

Downsizing recipes can be treacherous, especially in going from six to one–the consistency can come out wrong, the seasonings may not be right.  If you are determined to do THAT recipe, perhaps you need to invite friends.

You’ve gotten ideas from those huge recipes that you can use for one.  The problem now is that you need to get away from depending on a recipe slavishly.  You need to move on to improvisation and perhaps some food science to help understand how some specific ingredients react to the application of heat, i.e. cooking.

First improvisation is a must for cooking for one–and it’s not hard–it’s just taking that first step that seems difficult if you’ve always used recipes. A book that I’ve found immensely useful is How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson. This author has provided a wonderful review of various cooking techniques as well as recipes in ratios that promote improvisation of various types of dishes:  stews, salads, an such.  While the proportions given in this book tend to be for 4 people, you can scale them down to something manageable for one person.

I have to admit to being a Kindle addict.  I admit this because I might not have found this cookbook had I not been browsing the Kindle store.  The book is  Ratio: The simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking byMichael Ruhlman.

My grandmother taught me to cook and one of the things I remember learning from her was the “four parts cake”–frequently referred to as “pound cake” for equal parts of eggs, flour, sugar, and butter.  I was taught to vary the size of this cake by starting with the eggs.  You want a small cake, you use fewer eggs, and that “egg weight” determined the weight of each the other three ingredients.   It was many year before I discovered that this recipe was actually in something published in a cookbook.  While browsing through La Cuisine, by Raymond Oliver I found a recipe with the title pâtè à quatre-quarts which translated as “four parts cake”.  In the English edition this was translated as pound cake, but it was the French title that caught my eye.

In a manner reminiscent of that cake, Ruhlman gives recipes by proportions so that they are easily sized up or down.  This book gives ratios for batters, doughs, stocks and sauces, roux, and even sausages and many other things in ratios so that you have the base ingredients, and then add things like seasonings or “minor” ingredients (seasonings, et cetera) in order to have a finished dish.  This is the kind of technique that can allow cooking for one.

If you don’t want to contemplate doing the math of the ratios (and have an iPhone), there is an app for that.  The cookbook by Michael Ruhlman is now an iPhone app that will help you do the calculations.  Makes me wish I had an iPhone!

Hello world!

If you are reading this, I presume that you’ve read my Musings on Dining Alone and have decided to make an effort to cook yourself, to please your palate, be healthy, and even help on the budget a bit.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here.

I’ve been cooking for myself and the cat for more years than I am going to admit to publicly.  I’ve decided (after a long discussion with the cat) to hop on   the blog bandwagon.  I’m  looking to exchanging information that will make my cooking for one even better and easier.  So, welcome!  Together lets wipe out left-overs that go green or blue or pink and fuzzy in the refrigerator.